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Donations for Native Americans flood in from Irish people hoping to thank them for their help during the Great Hunger famine

Native American tribes struggle with pandemic
Native American tribes struggle with coronavirus crisis 04:53

A GoFundMe campaign created to raise money for Navajo and Hopi families hit hard by the coronavirus has attracted donations from many Irish people, who are hoping to thank Native Americans for helping them during the "Great Hunger" famine that devastated Ireland in the mid-1800s.

According to the organizers of the GoFundMe, the Choctaw Nation provided $170 in relief money (thousands in today's dollars) to the Irish during the famine in 1845. The Native American donors were said to have been inspired to help others who were suffering after experiencing massive losses during the Trail of Tears, when Native people were forced off their land and pushed west.

"173 years later to today, the favor is returned through generous donations from the Irish people to the Navajo Nation during our time of crisis," the organizers of the GoFundMe write. "A message from Irish donor, Pat Hayes, sent from Ireland across the ocean: 'From Ireland, 170 years later, the favour is returned! To our Native American brothers and sisters in your moment of hardship.'"

The fundraising page is now flooded with similar messages. "We remember the Choctaw generosity during our famine in the 1840's," donor George Salter wrote. 

"Thank you for all that your people did to help my people during the great hunger, over the generations your kindness and strength of spirit was not forgotten. Together we will get through this," Sean Farrell wrote along with his donation. 

"Joining the rest of Ireland in supporting you and hoping in a small way we can offer some comfort and friendship in your time of need," donor Malachy Geraghty posted. 

Distributing aid as part of the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund. Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund

The unique relationship between Native American tribes and Ireland during the famine was commemorated in 2017 when a "Kindred Spirits" statute was installed in a park in the small town of Midleton in Cork, Ireland, BBC News reports.

So far, the GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $1.8 million toward its $2 million goal. 

"We have lost so many of our sacred Navajo elders and youth to COVID-19. It is truly devastating. And a dark time in history for our Nation," the organizers write. "In moments like these, we are so grateful for the love and support we have received from all around the world. Acts of kindness from indigenous ancestors passed being reciprocated nearly 200 years later through blood memory and interconnectedness. Thank you, IRELAND, for showing solidarity and being here for us."

Several longstanding issues, including overcrowded housing and inadequate health care, have made Native American communities some of the most at-risk during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Although $10 billion from the federal CARES Act has been set aside for direct finding to tribes and federal Native American programs, a new fight has emerged over how the federal government should distribute the money. "We're worried that the money won't get right to the tribes," Kevin Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians, told "CBS This Morning" last month. He noted that federal funding meant to go toward housing for Indigenous communities has been frozen for decades. In addition to being a violation of old treaties, he now fears it is aiding the spread of the virus. 

Many Native American communities are also facing extreme economic hardships during the pandemic. In some communities, lockdowns have forced the closure of casinos which provided valuable jobs and revenue where there otherwise are none.

The GoFundMe was set up to help Navajo and Hopi communities in Northern Arizona, Southern Utah, and New Mexico. Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund organizers have been mobilizing volunteer emergency food and water distribution throughout the region since March.

The fund says they are prioritizing elderly, especially those raising their grandchildren, as well as single parents and struggling families by delivering free groceries, water and health supplies. 

After hearing about the relief fund, actor Jason Momoa sent a truck carrying 28 pallets with 1,540 cases of water to Tó naneesdizí (Tuba City) in April, the fund says. CBS News has reached out to the organizer of the GoFundMe for more information and is awaiting response. 

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